Article of the UIA Knowledge base
Edit 25 November 2021
by UIA PERMANENT SECRETARIAT with UIA experts Eddy Adams, Marcelline Bonneau and Birgit Georgi

Innovating for Just Urban Transitions

just transitions
The two-year knowledge activity led by UIA on just transitions issues builds on the experience of UIA funded projects to explore the approaches, innovative tools and good practices developed and used by cities when dealing with these transformation. This article frames the approach to this analysis focusing on how cities can facilitate the just transitions so that no one is left behind. It summarizes the inception report, jointly written by UIA experts Eddy Adams, Marcelline Bonneau and Birgit Georgi.

The summer of 2021 exposed our growing climatic uncertainty as heat and rain records continue to break. Meanwhile, the natural world has underlined humanity’s vulnerability in the form of COVID-19, a global pandemic that has taken the lives of over 1 million Europeans (Statista, n.d.) and affected those of many more. Although development towards more sustainable societies has been at the heart of global and European policies for decades now, time is clearly running out. Ambitions to make Europe the first climate neutral block in the world by 2050 reflect this urgency, in line with the European commitments in the Paris Agreement on Climate, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the European Green Deal.

Transitions towards a green and just Europe: going beyond business as usual

The EU policy level recognises the existential threat that climate change and environmental degradation poses to Europe. It also acknowledges the insufficiency of conventional technological, governance approaches and the need for innovation. As such, the European Green Deal and related instruments seek to transform the EU into a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy, where economic growth is decoupled from resource use and no person and no place is left behind. The transitions needed to achieve this objective will require innovative technological and governance approaches, going beyond business as usual, and must be just and inclusive (European Commission, 2019).

Cities are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts and at the same time drivers of the climate emergency, key players in achieving a carbon neutral society ensuring Just Transitions. They have the potential to implement radical local experiments that can be upscaled and adapted throughout Europe. They operate as a place for innovation, co-creation and participatory citizen-led actions, using technology and space.


UIA cities contribute and support Just Transitions

The 86 UIA funded projects implemented in EU cities are testing innovative solutions to urban challenges strictly linked to these just transitions – defined as the diverse and complementary approaches needed to achieve a fair, inclusive climate neutral and resilient economy, addressing at the same time environmental, social and economic issues.

The UIA multi-stakeholder approach has facilitated innovative stakeholder collaboration within the projects, involving (amongst others) grass-roots activists, urban policy makers, practitioners, and technical experts. Developing new approaches to public procurement, nurturing new green sectors and developing monitoring frameworks have been amongst the new roles tested by UIA-funded cities. Showcasing these and upscaling the lessons learned will enable other cities to apply them, increasing the prospect of Just Transitions across Europe.  This is why UIA has launched the Just Transitions knowledge activity in order to understand the contribution and the support to Just Transitions and to extract related good practices and lessons learned from UIA cities during the implementation of innovative projects.

While the transitions concern all sectors of the economy and society, three main challenges stand out and will be analysed within the scope of the activity: the job market green renewal, transitions affordable for all (empowerment of low-income and vulnerable stakeholders) and democratic transitions for all (renewal of governance and participative structures). The identified good practices, approaches and tools as well as the lessons learned, will provide support to urban practitioners and managing authorities of mainstream programmes that face the challenges of implementing Just Transitions in their territories.


The job market green renewal

Addressing the potential labour market impacts of the climate neutral transition is central to the European Green Deal. UIA cities are testing solutions to mitigate the impact of job losses and to support industry adaptation and the growth of new climate neutral industry sectors. The question of skills sits at the heart of their sustainable urban development strategies: what future skills will be required and how we can equip our citizens with them - both now and in the future?

No industry sector will remain unaffected by the transition to the Next Economy. Effectively forecasting the jobs and skills implications of this is the crucial first step in being prepared, shining a light on occupations that will disappear as well as the new ones that will emerge. Several UIA cities have conducted pioneering work in this respect such as Eindhoven and Rotterdam in The Netherlands and a smaller Spanish city Cuenca, in the niche area of urban forestry. Aveiro in Portugal has also been a pioneer around the growing importance of digital skills. There are also some UIA examples around new sector support, with smaller cities like Viladecans (Spain) around housing and energy, Lappeenrantra (Finland) concerning the circular economy and the Swedish city of Växjö, which is pioneering a new approach to procurement, to stimulate new green business responses to city challenges.

Just transitions will require workers with new skills as well as the refresh of existing ones as well as paying special attention to the low skilled and those working in carbon reliant sectors. A number of UIA projects develop pertinent approaches to the questions of skilling such as the ones implemented in Pozzuoli and Fuenlabrada, really grappling with the twin challenges of reducing carbon whilst reskilling the most disadvantaged citizens. Cluj-Napoca also provides a related example in a project with a dual focus on the culture and creative industry sectors and reskilling Roma citizens. Additionally, it will be important to understand who is working alongside city authorities to make this happen. The financial options being utilised at city level will also be an important aspect of this research.


Make the transition affordable for all

One of the main questions relating to sustainable transitions is “how to leave no one behind”? Indeed, rebound effects of decarbonising policies can be strong on socio-economic inequalities, preventing access to green technologies and services to vulnerable groups.

In order to address these, financing green and innovative technologies has enabled their access to all (financial mechanisms and solutions that counterbalance the green solutions overcost). For example, amongst the UIA projects financial instruments and solutions can ensure all, including vulnerable groups, can access high quality and sustainable housing in the cities of Ghent, Mataró and Budapest or sustainable energy in Getafe. Using combined social and environmental criteria in public procurement also supports the wider transition of all as demonstrated by the city of Madrid with the MARES project.

In addition, providing access to green and innovative services and technologies can reach out to vulnerable groups. This can be done with the inclusion of vulnerable groups and marginalised people:

- in local projects on nature-based solutions and/or regeneration projects such as in the cities of Latina, Baia Mare and Seraing

- in the sustainable renovation of housing with social purposes (e.g. in Athens) or the sustainable regeneration for community benefits (e.g. in Paris).

The development of (mixed) residential areas that can be combined with the reduction of emissions together with residents has also been experienced in the cities of Viladecans, Budapest and Amsterdam. Providing access to sustainable and healthy food also improve social reinsertion and cohesion and combating food waste as done in Lille (e.g. TAST’in FIVES, AU2Food). Finally, Szeged in Hungary demonstrates that making the city accessible and affordable to all can also happen with the design of new and softer transport modalities.


Democratic transition for all

Given that the necessary systemic change will affect all stakeholders and population groups in one or another way, their active involvement in decision, policy-making and implementation is essential, in particular, when following the intention that climate neutrality shall be achieved by Just Transitions leaving nobody behind. A broad participation of all stakeholders and the public is required with deep partnerships, new forms of co-creation and more citizen control. However, certain groups of stakeholders may not have the resources, time and technical means if digital tools are used, or have the knowledge to contribute in participatory processes in the way these are organised (Kotsila et al., 2020; Shelton, 2018). Moreover, structures for co-creation are not sufficiently developed in many cities especially in countries where top-down approaches are dominant while the various citizen groups need to be enabled to actively participate in Just Transitions and be supported by appropriate governance structures.

UIA cities deliver a range of models for co-creation supporting a democratic transition for all. Participatory approaches are a basic requirement for all UIA projects regardless of the thematic topic. However, some of the projects put a specific focus on societal innovation making them particularly relevant here.

The cities use different forms of participation when implementing their projects:

- co-creation processes for the design process and building of shared visions often using workshops and labs in the cities of Latina and Baia Mare;

- collaborative schemes for the implementation of action and management in forms of innovative multi-stakeholder arrangements that can be formal and informal, like civic engagement models, public-private partnerships, co-management in Turin, Viladecans and Seville;

- community-led approaches of self-empowerment by, e.g., citizen-owned projects or participative budgets, constituting high levels of participation in decision-making in Brussels and Leiedal.

Also, different features and tools of used participation approaches can be particularly relevant for a democratic transition for all in order to reach less active citizen and other stakeholder groups, such as:

- tailored approaches centred around such groups, personalised or area-based (e.g. in Verona and Paris);

- different enabling strategies and tools to convince, motivate and train them by focusing, i.e., on well-being and quality of life or showing business and employment opportunities; and among these, creative tools such as using arts and culture to engage people or gamification to make participation enjoyable whilst reaching less active groups (e.g. in Bergamo and Budapest).

What's next?

Analysing the challenges, activities, results and lessons from UIA cities in relation to Just Transitions will involve mapping the most relevant cities and projects, both from UIA and beyond. The process will also include city hearings, together with UIA city representatives. Furthermore, the input of key witnesses from various organisations (including European Commission DGs and relevant international organisations) will help provide context and synergies. The overall process will generate in-depth analysis, case studies and recommendations of use for policy-makers at city and EU level as well as those responsible for local level implementation.


Sign up here to get all updates and join the UIA journey on Just Transitions. The first topic that we are currently exploring is the job market renewal.

Stay updated with the UIA KnowledgeLab and our social media platforms @UIA_Initiative for the latest results and findings.

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